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The Biggest Show in Golf

Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Laurence Fishburne, May/June 2013

When the U.S. Open returns to the Merion Golf Club in the leafy suburbs of Philadelphia this June, the intent of the United States Golf Association will be to determine our country’s national champion. There will be 156 players teeing off on Thursday, and God willing on Sunday night one will be left standing, and he might even have enough strength remaining to lift the trophy.

The U.S. Open isn’t merely an examination of a player’s ability to hit the ball, to pitch it, to chip it or to putt it. Sure, the Open is a test of skill. But even more so, it’s a test of will. The USGA is trying to find the player who produces winning shots on a golf course set on a precipice, at the very edge of playability. They are trying to find the player who, with hands shaking, knees knocking and stomach churning, survives the boot camp of this most arduous of all the major championships.

At Merion, as it does at classic courses as Oakmont, Olympic and Bethpage Black, the USGA transforms the bucolic to the brutal, the tranquil to the treacherous, the demanding to the demonic. No other major championship, not the Masters, not the British Open, not the PGA Championship, seeks to get so deeply between the ears of its competitors. Or is it the combatants? The U.S. Open isn’t so much a mine field as a mind field. Disaster lurks, deliberately, and the USGA asks two questions: How do you avoid it? If it strikes, how do you deal with it?

“The U.S. Open works your psyche at least a month out, maybe even at the start of the year,” says Ray Floyd, the 1986 winner at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club. “You start thinking, How am I going to practice for it? Do I have a chance to win on that particular course with the way they set things up? What is my attitude going to be coming in?”

That’s a way of saying in so many words that a chief component of the U.S. Open is dread. But let’s let Mike Davis, the
executive director of the USGA and the man charged with setting up Open courses since 2006, tell you how he defines the Open.

“That’s a good basic question,” says Davis, whose Open setups have been largely hailed by the game’s best players as stern but fair. “Very simply, it is this country’s national championship. It started out that way in 1895, and has grown to be a truly international event. It’s the only one of our championships which is truly based solely on skill. We don’t care if you are male, female, junior, senior, amateur, professional tour player, a club pro or whatever. It’s all about an open championship and for those good enough to qualify, then it’s a 72-hole event to identify the champion.

“From the very get-go it started out to be a very stern test of golf. One of our goals is that it is a very tough test of golf, that it tests every aspect of the game from your ability to strike the golf ball, your ability to manage your way around the golf course, your ability to make recovery shots, your ability to handle yourself under pressure. “We hope that not only is it tough, but it is a fair test. When a player executes a good shot they are rewarded, if they hit an average shot it’s an average result, if they hit a poor shot then there are consequences. So that is how I would describe the U.S. Open.”

Since the Open began at the Newport Country Club in 1895, it’s been that stern test, and has become a tournament defined in the modern era of the game by courses set up to be firm and fast on the short grass, and ball-swallowing in the long grass. Throw some wind into the mix and the shot-making becomes more about shot-creating. For the U.S. Open, a player’s most valuable asset is his head.

As Tom Watson, the 1982 winner at Pebble Beach, said a very long time ago: “It takes courage to win the U.S. Open, more courage than any other tournament.”

Each year, more than 8,000 players with a maximum handicap index of 1.4 try to make it through the Open’s qualifying process to play against the likes of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy. Former U.S. Open winners and many professional golfers are exempt from qualifying by their world rankings and other result-based classifications, but everyone else starts in local qualifiers and moves up to regional qualifiers where the top finishers earn their way into the Open. But the participants aren’t really playing against their fellow golfers, they’re playing against the course. And at the U.S. Open they are playing against a course set up to its extreme, equipped with defenses that repel their shots and rattle their brains.

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